In my last post, I referred to the fact that less than half of UK businesses have an integrated mental health and wellbeing strategy.

Today, millions across the UK population have had at least one dose of the vaccine. As the grips of winter seem to have arrived, we remain positive that Christmas will be much better than the last one.

Yet, with all the positivity, it’s clear there is still a long way to go. The reported statistic of 1 in 6 UK workers experiencing a mental health issue at any one time last year means leaders need to ensure that anyone affected has easy access to the support and services they need within a caring organisational culture.

So what does an in-depth, encompassing, and effective wellbeing strategy look like, and what practical steps can be taken to start improving your employees’ mental wellbeing? The good news is that whatever your budget, there is a strategy for you.

What the Term ‘Wellbeing Strategy’ Really Means

Let’s take a look at what encompasses a ‘culture of wellbeing’, which, at its best, always stems from a strategic approach.

The term ‘wellbeing strategy’ has grown to be a buzzword that, sadly, rarely lives up to its true definition. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 44% of UK organisations surveyed in 2020 claimed to have a wellbeing strategy, a fantastic increase of 40% from 2019!

However, this claim too often turns out to be a showcase of a wellness-related bundle of perks and benefits that may include mindfulness programmes, bringing in pension advisors, sharing nutritional advice or encouraging staff to try exercise, such as a ‘Couch to 5K’. And while all of these can be wonderful initiatives in their own right, an holistic mental health and wellbeing strategy they are not.

A true mental health and wellbeing strategy – by definition – involves identifying an initial challenge and objective with a plan of action to get there. This could reduce work-related stress or improve mental health by encouraging employees to practice self-care, stemming from poor results in an employee survey or red flags from line manager check-ins. An objective around improving mental wellbeing could then include deploying specific tools (such as mental health and psychological, educational training, the use of technological apps such as WeFocus or the Thrive app), supplemented by active efforts to increase discussions around mental health awareness within the company. The businesses leaders and people managers should role model an open and psychologically safe culture.

Ongoing mental health and wellbeing monitoring would then form a data-driven basis for adjusting the strategy in a cycle of continuous improvement. Such a strategic approach, which relies directly on first-hand data, is far more likely to sustain employee wellbeing in the long-term compared to arbitrarily handing out wellness perks, no matter how generous these may seem.

Better Together

Looking after employees’ mental health isn’t easy, especially when we try to do it alone. Our mental health and wellbeing specialists can support your mental health and wellbeing strategy. So how do we do this?

For Lee Sharp, who is the Director of Mental Health at Occupational Health Consultants K2 Associates UK Limited, as well as a member of the British Psychological Society, Master of Science in Advanced Applied Psychology, Member of the Special Group of Coaching Psychologists, Corporate Mental Health Facilitator and MHFA approved Mental Health First Aid Instructor; there are three important stages needed to ensure you develop an effective strategy:

“The first stage is to really understand your company and the specific challenges faced by your workforce. Once this is known, apply the knowledge of mental health and wellbeing experts to create the right strategy for your business. This must include knowing what to measure and how to measure it and continue to measure during and after any specific interventions are implemented and at regular periods thereafter. The third stage is using the data you have gathered through those outcomes that you know measure mental health and wellbeing to refine your strategy and to feedback within the organisation as you go.

The data will tell you what is working and what isn’t. Based on that, you can eliminate what isn’t working, do more of what is working, and try other strategies if your first approach was not entirely successful.”

We must also recognise the impact of Covid-19, which has “massively” impacted the definition of ‘wellbeing strategy’. Looking ahead to trends we may see in a post-Covid world, the first stage mentioned might need revisiting as the things that might have been appropriate to measure pre-Covid might not be the right things to measure now or in the future. Certain strategies might be designed to work when employees were predominantly operating at work premises. Covid-19 changed all that, as will other things in the future. Any strategy must be capable of being reviewed and re-thought. Everything that has been created to enable staff to access help remotely and independent of their work premises is likely here to stay, and such radical rethinking of what a workplace is and how to tackle wellbeing when your employees are working from home will likely endure past the end of the pandemic.

Stage 1: Measuring Wellbeing in Your Workplace

A mental health and wellbeing strategy ideally begins with a baseline assessment of employees’ mental health experiences and wellbeing levels. Varying methods exist but should utilise a valid and reliable measurement system. Psychological and scientific expertise is needed here to achieve this properly.
In addition to forming the best strategic foundation, the act of surveying employees in itself demonstrates care by taking time to gather and understand how people are feeling (especially vital during times of uncertainty or crisis).

While asking once is a good start, measuring mental health and wellbeing should really be done multiple times throughout the year, thus providing you with a more accurate long term picture rather than simply a one-off snapshot.

Again, survey systems exist that can collect this information from employees’ regularly and often in real-time!

Stage 2: Monitoring Mental Wellbeing

Consider the following scenario: You’ve recently run a wellbeing survey to kick off the cycle of building a holistic wellbeing strategy in your organisation. Now it’s time to scrutinise your results.
During your analysis, you begin to realise there may be a large proportion of employees struggling to take care of their mental health or feeling that their organisation doesn’t encourage them to do so. In particular, you notice low scores in response to statements such as “My organisation actively promotes mental and physical health among its employees” and “My organisation genuinely prioritises employee wellbeing”. For HR leaders, these are key indicators of how far along the journey to a culture of wellbeing they are, received directly from the horse’s mouth.

One strategic solution to your deficit could be to ensure all staff members are aware of what the organisation does via an education and information campaign. Still, you could also introduce EAP’s or technology support to your workforce, alongside an internal communications campaign around mental health and wellbeing – likely leading to increased scores in a follow-up survey, which would help demonstrate to staff a change.

Stage 3: Sustaining Your Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy

Since mental health and well-being are a specialised area of knowledge, managing an organisation’s well-being strategy should sit with whoever has the right expertise and whoever is committed to the strategy. Commitment is sometimes better than expertise, especially if the organisation is committed to bringing in experts to help formulate a strategy and its implementation.
“It’s a complex subject, and there will be many people out there claiming to understand it,” says Lee Sharp. “To ensure that you have the right strategy, you need to ensure that a real expert with the right knowledge, qualifications and experience has helped you design it and also deliver it if you don’t have the necessary resources in-house.”

How Line Managers Can Help

Line managers are placed at the intersection of organisational culture and employees’ individual experiences. Continuous touchpoints, such as one-to-ones, offer valuable opportunities for stress monitoring, spotting signs of poor mental health, and assessing employees’ support needs, but only if the right training is provided and if sufficient time is permitted to allow this to occur.

It’s important, however, that organisations are careful not to overburden these managers, who tend to have significant work pressures of their own. “The employer should create the right opportunities and offer the right resources, but it is the employee’s responsibility to act on those,” Lee Sharp explains.

Also, businesses should consider whether line managers must always be the ones to whom an employee discusses mental health. Sometimes, having staff appointed to provide support and signpost for where professional and further help can be obtained without any of it being formally reported to line managers can be vital to achieving a sense of openness and psychological safety.

“So, if done properly and in this way, most of the responsibility lies with the employee to look after their own mental health and wellbeing as the employee has access to all the right resources and has an employer that enables them the time to actually take advantage of those opportunities.”

In the same vein, possibly the best contribution a line manager can make to their organisation’s mental health and wellbeing strategy is to showcase genuine care, creating a safe space for employees to talk about their challenges and needs. It’s then up to individuals to speak up as and when needed. Managers can really only do this when supported to do so by the senior leadership team.

Role-Modelling by Senior Leaders

To role model a culture of wellbeing, managers need to be seen prioritising their own self-care, thereby encouraging others to do the same.

Just as senior leaders are tasked with role modelling company values, they should [also] be visible when mental health and wellbeing initiatives are rolled out and really show that they themselves are engaging with these initiatives. They should speak openly about their own mental health and wellbeing challenges and do their utmost to reduce stigma. They should also make sure resources are allocated to mental health and wellbeing and that it is not seen as simply an afterthought.

If any educational or technological support is offered to employees, this is an ideal opportunity for role modelling. You want to be able to send the message that “many managers use the app and enjoy the benefits it confers to them for their own mental health and wellbeing”.

Unfortunately, many C-level leaders are unwilling to publicly speak on these subjects, despite the obvious statistical probability that they too have experienced problems at similar percentages to the general population.

Many leaders may see this as self-indulgent, or maybe they may tell themselves they do not have the time – but it is important to make the time, not just for the sake of their own health but also for that of their employees.

If you are seen as too busy or too important for such things, the people in your business will likely follow your lead.